Opera Theatre St. Louis' 'New Works, Bold Voices' Contemporary Opera Series Will Continue 'Indefinitely'

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ acclaimed “New Works, Bold Voices” will continue into at least 2020 with alternating seasons, according to its strategic plan, released recently. Both series premiere contemporary and often commissioned works around the world as an effort to contribute to the genre’s canon—after all, you can’t just perform the same stuff for 300 years.

Theo Lebow, Elizabeth Futral, Tobias Greenhalgh and Danny Brevik in the 2014 production of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ “The Magic Flute.” (Photo by Ken Howard)

Theo Lebow, Elizabeth Futral, Tobias Greenhalgh and Danny Brevik in the 2014 production of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ “The Magic Flute.” Photo by Ken Howard, courtesy of Opera Theatre.

But, fingers crossed, it will go on much longer. Opera Theatre St. Louis Executive Director Tim O’Leary says that “the series will continue indefinitely beyond that … for as long as possible.” He says it doesn’t seem like there’s the human or financial resources to do it annually, but every other year “will help us make a contribution to opera as an American art form.”

The “New Works” series was originally slated for three years—2013, 2014 and 2016. The last work in the current series is an operatic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown”—a novel that the LA Times called his greatest since “The Satanic Verses”—to debut next year. But a gift of $750,000 from the Whitaker Foundation, as well as ongoing support from The Saigh Foundation, will allow for “New Works” premieres every other season. The series will continue in 2020 with another opera from Blanchard that’s also co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis to be performed in 2018.

“Our idea behind ‘New Works, Bold Voices” is that new operatic works should be about issues that are meaningful in contemporary life,” says O’Leary. “American composers, subject matter from a modern era. We’ve been really heartened at the way people have responded.”

What does he mean? First, there was a co-commissioned opera with Jazz St. Louis, “Champion,” by five-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer—43 percent of the audience was new to Opera Theatre. “Champion” was followed by the world premiere of “27” last year, by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek—the same year that returning subscribers accounted for almost 90 percent of the subscription base. Both operas are now in the works for performances at other major companies in the US.

“My philosophy in commissioning work is to ask the artists who are going to write the work to discover the topic themselves,” says O’Leary. “We’re in the process right now with Blanchard. But I think what is important for us to contribute to our culture are stories about our common humanity across differences that otherwise divide us. This is what the arts express with such power, and it’s a very important idea, always, but I think especially lately.”

In the years between “New Works” operas, Opera Theatre will, in a reciprocal gesture, perform contemporary works commissioned by other companies. Next up: Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie’s two-act version of their acclaimed Steinbeck-based “Grapes of Wraths” in 2017.

“We’re really seeing new works are attracting audiences, and it’s certainly inspired philanthropies at a national level,” says O’Leary, speaking of the Mellon Foundation’s challenge grant. “We had to secure $1.5 million to secure their grant, but we raised $3 million, mostly from St. Louis donors. So we see that this is something that’s really support by the public.”

The strategic plan, which takes effect this year and lays out the groundwork for the next five, also announced that the Opera Theatre’s focus on young professional development will continue to intensify. The Opera Theatre’s current training program, Gerdine Artist Program, is well-known for finding opera’s next big talent and giving them the experience they need to take on some of the biggest stages around the world. The two new initiatives outlined in the strategic plan are the Richard Gaddes Festival Artists, a continuing-ed program of sorts for alumni of the Gerdine program,  and “Center Stage,” a new annual concert showcasing members of both. Additionally, they’ll also establish artist residencies and co-created programs. Finally to continue their growth, creatively and otherwise, the Opera Theatre will develop an Innovation Capital Fund.

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